“Pretty Bobby Shafto”

By Iris Syndergaard

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    The minute Robert woke up he knew the weather was still stormy. He was glad. Maybe I can stay home from school today, he thought.

    Ever since he and his parents had moved to Pinehills in late summer, Robert had been unhappy. Each school morning when he awoke he felt a nagging dread in his stomach.

    Robert dressed and went into the kitchen where his mother and father stood in the doorway, looking out at the dark day. He was still clinging to the hope that his mother would let him stay home, but all she said was, “Be sure and wear your warm shirt, Robert.” There was not a word about staying home.

    A horse’s hooves sounded outside. A man called, “Ready, Mr. Shaft?”

    Robert’s father answered, “Be right with you,” as he put on his yellow slicker and hat.

    “Are you going to help build up the dam on Indian River?” Robert asked his father.

    “Yes. Every man in town is needed there, Robert. After a week of rain Pinehills’ reservoir is in danger of spilling over.”

    Robert’s mother looked worried. “Indian River runs right beside the schoolhouse,” she said. “What if the dam should break?”

    Robert’s father tried to ease her concern. “Don’t worry, Mother,” he said. “We’ll be there to watch it all day.”

    After his father had gone Robert sat down at the table. He wasn’t hungry and he wanted to say, “I don’t feel well, Mother,” or, “Maybe I should stay home to be with you,” but she would know he was only making excuses.

    “Eat your breakfast or you’ll be late for school,” Mother insisted, so Robert choked down a few mouthfuls and then, with dragging footsteps, he set out under gray clouds that sagged nearly to the tops of the trees. Down the hill he trudged, his feet swishing through the wet leaves. He sniffed the brown smell of mud. I wish I could walk to some faraway, enchanted place and never have to go to school again, he thought.

    But Robert soon reached the clearing where the one-room schoolhouse stood.

    Two girls immediately ran up to meet him. Freckled Rebecca skipped on one side of Robert, and Patricia walked on the other side of him. Together they chanted, “Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea, Silver buckles on his knee. He’ll come back and marry me. Pretty Bobby Shafto.”

    Then both girls giggled and Robert continued on to school, feeling miserable and lonely. He couldn’t remember who first used the nursery rhyme to tease him, but soon every child in school began chanting, “Pretty Bobby Shafto!” whenever they saw him. Robert felt he didn’t have a single friend.

    When he reached the schoolhouse, Robert slumped in his seat in the back row where he was the only sixth-grader. He watched the teacher write words on the chalkboard. Robert thought Miss Parker was the one pleasant thing about school.

    Turning around she asked, “Has the rain started again, Robert?”

    “No, Ma’am, but the clouds are full,” he answered.

    “Oh, dear,” Miss Parker said, looking worriedly out the window. “Maybe I should send the children home. Indian River runs so near the school.”

    “My father said every man in town is watching the dam,” Robert told her.

    “Well, then I’ll begin school,” she said. “Will you please ring the bell for me?”

    Students hurried past Robert as he stood beside the door clanging the brass bell. No one spoke to him except to whisper, “Pretty Bobby Shafto!” or tease, “Where’s the silver buckles for your knee?”

    Slumped in his seat, Robert watched Miss Parker as she listened to the first-graders read. He couldn’t help smiling when Amy Andrews read aloud. She looked too tiny to be in school.

    A rumble of thunder and a crackle of lightning made Robert and the other children jump. Just as Miss Parker said, “Don’t be frightened!” another rumbling noise shook the schoolhouse. It was the loudest sound Robert had ever heard, a heavy shuddering rumble very different from thunder.

    Everyone in the room except Robert sat so still they appeared frozen. He rushed to the door and shouted, “The dam broke! Here comes the water!”

    The boys and girls began to cry as Miss Parker ran to the door and stood beside Robert. They looked out at the water swirling and roaring only a few feet away from where they stood. No longer held by the dam, the water leaped from the riverbed, rushing toward the schoolhouse. Water was coming inside the schoolroom now and Robert’s feet were wet.

    “Robert, help me push my desk under the attic trapdoor,” Miss Parker directed. “Then lift the children up to me if you can.”

    Robert and the teacher shoved the desk beneath the little opening in the ceiling. He put a chair on the table, then climbed up to push the door aside and helped her into the attic.

    “Get in line by grades,” she called down. “Youngest first. Robert will lift you up to me.”

    One by one, as the water rose higher in the room, the children climbed onto the desk. Straining, Robert lifted each child high enough for Miss Parker to grab his wrists and pull him into the dim, dry attic.

    When the last child in line was safely inside Robert started to climb up himself. “Amy? Where’s Amy Andrews?” Miss Parker called.

    The other children cried, “She isn’t here! Where’s Amy?”

    Robert jumped off the desk into the still-rising water and began to search the schoolroom. He finally found Amy clinging to a chair that had floated into a corner.

    “Put your arms around my neck, Amy,” Robert told her. “Hold tight so I can lift you into the attic.”

    But Robert’s legs weren’t strong enough to carry both of them through the swirling water. No matter how hard he struggled, he couldn’t reach the desk.

    Up in the attic the children kept calling, “Come on, Robert!” He saw Miss Parker’s anxious expression just as the rushing water swept him off his feet and through the open door.

    Robert never knew exactly what happened next. He only remembered swimming as hard as he could with Amy’s arms wrapped tightly around his neck. Then they were on a log that swept them swiftly downstream.

    Robert couldn’t tell where they were. Sometimes it seemed he and Amy stayed in one place while trees and houses rushed by. Other times he looked down at the racing water and grew so dizzy he was afraid he would fall off the log. Then he’d shut his eyes and tell Amy softly, “Don’t let go!”

    At a place where the river curved, the log slammed into a high bank and stuck there, but Robert knew he couldn’t climb the steep, muddy bank. His legs felt like soaked wood and it was almost more than he could do to hang onto the log with his weary arms. Amy was crying and Robert held her close as he prayed, “Heavenly Father, please send someone to find us.”

    The long hours seemed to creep slowly by. At last the most welcome sound Robert had ever heard came from the bank above them. It was his father’s voice. “Here they are!” he shouted. “I’ve found Robert and Amy and they’re alive!”

    It was two weeks before the flood damage was cleaned up and the school could reopen. And as Robert set out through the early morning sunshine he wondered how it would seem to be back in the schoolroom again. He was glad he had been able to help Miss Parker but he dreaded the teasing of the children as much as ever.

    Walking slowly, Robert was nearly to the schoolhouse when he heard someone shout, “Here he comes!” Then someone else called, “It’s our Bobby Shaft who went to sea!”

    Suddenly Robert was surrounded by all the boys and girls in the little school. Everyone was happy to see him. And even the old nursery rhyme sounded good when Amy Andrews ran up, slipped her small hand inside of Robert’s big one and said, “My pretty Bobby Shafto!”

    Illustrated by Virginia Sargent